When ELLERY QUEEN met NBC
by Dale Andrews
Please welcome back our good friend Dale Andrews, the latest avatar of a certain well-known detective. —JLW
Satire, it is said, closes on Saturday nights. In an article published some years back in the San Francisco Weekly reflecting on the spotty career of satirist Tom Lehrer, Jack Boulware offered the following explanation of the truth underlying the cliché: “satire never makes any money and people don’t understand it.”
Writers of mystery short stories can fully sympathize with at least the first part of that explanation – like the satirist there may be many reasons for short story writers to practice their art, but one of them is certainly not money. But a truer corollary to satire’s epitaph is the fate of the televised mystery short story. A smartly written television mystery series, particularly a whodunit, rarely lasts more than a season. And forget about anthologies – other than Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone they invariably cave in a few weeks. The success of classical mysteries on the airwaves it has been observed, like the success of satire, is directly and inversely correlated to the intellectual effort demanded from the viewers.
I know, I know. You will point to the many CSIs and Law and Orders that seem to grind on forever. Or you will remind me that “Murder She Wrote” lasted for 12 seasons. But comparing classic mysteries, particularly “fair play” intellectual brain-teasers, to those admittedly successful series is, I would posit, like comparing Milton Berle to Tom Lehrer. It is not Burlesque that closes in a week – it’s satire.
Two paragraphs back I was tempted to state that smartly written television mysteries rarely last more than 13 weeks, but that would have been historically at least a bit unfair. One of the finest whodunits ever developed for television in fact lasted a full season.
NBC’s 1975-1976 Ellery Queen series was developed for television by Richard Levinson and William Link, of Columbo fame. They approached the series with both a love and an understanding of the Queen oeuvre. Earlier Queen movies and television series simply could not get the tone right. They tended to lessen the intricacy of the Queen plots while at the same time re-inventing Ellery into a humorous or even slapstick foil. An earlier NBC pilot for an Ellery Queen series surrealistically and disastrously handed over Ellery’s role to Peter Lawford, who played him as a “mod” Brit. But in NBC’s 1975-1976 Ellery Queen series, amazingly, everything clicked. The result was a series that was true to the literary Queen and that delivered wonderful “fair play” mysteries to viewers every week.
Levinson and Link, by all accounts lifelong Queen fans, were given free hand by NBC to do Ellery Queen the way they wanted. The producers anchored the series in 1947 and set a stylistic tone in keeping with the Queen works of the 1940s. The late Jim Hutton captured Ellery as a good-natured, absent-minded young man – a character who more neatly matched the Ellery of the 1940s (as contrasted to the pince-nez dandy from the earlier Queen volumes).
While the absent minded nature of Ellery was in many respects itself re-invention, it was re-invention that worked because it did not stray impermissibly from the original. In an earlier article on pastiches I offered the following rule that I apply when utilizing a character created by others – like the physician, I “try first to do no harm.” There are leeways that can be taken with an existing character, but at the end of the story the character must remain recognizable. The befuddled and clumsy Ellery of the movies failed because the character was played too broadly – Ellery was transformed into a burlesque of the original. But, by contrast, the absent minded Ellery created by Mr. Hutton, and as envisioned by Levinson and Link, rang true.
In the 11 October 1975 issue of TV Guide, published the week that the NBC series premiered, Rand Lee, one of Manfred B. Lee’s sons, made precisely this point:
In many ways, Ellery is a lot like his creators. The NBC Ellery Queen pilot film captured the "authentic" Ellery nearly as he has ever been captured; after watching that film . . . Cousin Fred [Dannay] remarked it was like seeing himself as a young man. Had Dad lived to see the pilot (he died in 1971 of a heart attack), he might have said the same thing about himself. One can imagine the NBC Ellery being cornered at a party by an enthusiastic fan and falling asleep in his chair while she gushes at him; chopping up redwood patio furniture to use in building bird cages; finally succumbing to the charms of some pretty girl but forgetting to formally propose to her until their wedding day. My father actually did all those things.
So, too, the show captured the Inspector, even though it dropped the “Old Man’s” trademark mustache. Hutton’s charm and natural manner played perfectly against David Wayne’s crusty Richard Queen, and a more perfect Sergeant Velie than that delivered by Tom Reese is hard to imagine.
But while each of these ingredients was necessary to the show’s critical (if not commercial) success, it was the caliber of the whodunit mysteries that were the hallmark of the series. Though the episodes varied in quality, each was ultimately redeemed by its plot, the production values, and the marvelous cast. The stories were also perhaps the best televised approach to classic “fair play” detective short stories ever brought to the television screen. All of the clues were meticulously displayed for the viewer – the camera, in fact, would often focus in on the critical clue for a long moment, daring us to figure out its significance – and when Ellery invariably turned to the screen three-quarters of the way through each episode to offer up his “challenge to the reader” we had only ourselves to blame if (when!) we still could not decipher the truth that Mr. Queen had just gleaned.
So why did this erudite, stylistic and highly praised series last but one year? Hearkening back to the beginning of this discussion, I think it is the same reason that satire closes in a week. The show was, too good, it demanded more than the television audience was willing to commit.
In a 2002 article”Confessions of a Mystery Writer " William Link concluded as much. " Thinking back,” he wrote, “the Queen series was too complicated for its own good. I remember spending an entire afternoon with Dick [Levinson] trying to figure how keys on a keychain would fall into what configuration in one’s pocket when placed there. " When audiences didn’t respond the lesson was learned: " [o]ur failure with Ellery Queen was our template” for future efforts, Levinson observed.
We deliberately made the clues on M urder She Wrote easier to decipher, including a very guessable murderer now and then. Part of our psychology was to reward the focused viewers because they might then be motivated to return the following week. Another unexpressed reason was that it was far easier to come up with facile clues than sweating bullets over keys in a pocket… The upshot was that ‘Murder She Wrote‘ thrived for 12 seasons, Ellery Queen [only] one.
In short, the Queen show simply refused to write to a least common denominator. Like good satire, which closes on Saturday night, that ultimately proved its undoing.
Short of catching an errant re-run of Ellery Queen, the series, like much of Queen’s written work, is now largely unavailable. Like other well-done series ( The Defenders springs to mind) the 1975 Queen series has become a lost treasure. It has never been officially re-issued in DVD format (although lower quality recordings can be found on line). The fine web site Ellery Queen Show is devoted totally to the series and Kurt Sercu’s always excellent and encyclopedically annotated web site Ellery Queen, a Website on Deduction also has detailed information concerning the series and each of its episodes. But otherwise the NBC series is largely forgotten.
We mystery short story writers are a tough lot, though. We toil hard for very little, we don’t give up easily; we are used to tilting at windmills and looking for story ideas where we can find them. One, and only one, of the episodes of Ellery Queen was actually based on a Queen story – The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party, which aired on October 30, 1975. That episode has been recognized as perhaps the best screen treatment ever of a Queen story. What if Ellery had been called to Hollywood as a consultant on that episode? And what if something went terribly wrong during the filming? That got me to thinking.
My next Ellery Queen pastiche, The Mad Hatter’s Riddle, set in Hollywood in the fall of 1975, appears in the September/October edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which will be out later this month. I hope you enjoy it.
This article has drawn extensively from material collected and compiled by Kurt Sercu, my sometimes-collaborator, good friend, and the webmaster of the aforementioned Ellery Queen web site. The clip art is from Kurt’s website. Kurt also recently uncovered a link to an NBC promotional film introducing the entire 1975 NBC lineup. It’s available here and if you “fast forward for about 16 minutes you can see the promotional introduction of Ellery Queen.
There is no better way for mystery fans to spend a rainy afternoon than by exploring the labyrinthine corridors of Ellery Queen – A Website on Deduction